With its themes of identity, appropriation and the ambiguity of authorship in contemporary art, Gavin & Turk is a suitably schizophrenic title for a recent exhibition at London's Ben Brown Fine Arts gallery. The show is the latest offering from Gavin Turk, the British artist who gained notoriety for his graduation piece at the Royal College of Art in 1991; an empty studio that contained just a blue English Heritage plaque bearing the words "Gavin Turk worked here 1989-91". This act may have cost Turk his degree, but it secured his place as one of the generation of Young British Artists (YBAs) who rose to prominence in nineties Britain. The YBAs' strategies of self-promotion raised questions about the artist's identity in a media and market-saturated discipline that Turk then made the basis of his practice, as in Pop (1993), a self-portrait that simultaneously referenced Sid Vicious, Elvis Presley and Andy Warhol.
Gavin & Turk is a solo show entirely consisting of new works. Yet as its name suggests, this is still an exhibition about more than one man. It is billed as an homage to Alighiero Boetti, the Italian conceptual artist, who in the 1970s, started signing his work Alighiero e Boetti, a gesture that expressed his fascination in both wordplay and the messy duality of the self. It is timed to coincide with a major Tate Modern retrospective of Boetti, who was originally associated with the Arte Povera movement in the late 1960s.
Although Boetti soon distanced himself from the movement, he retained an interest in its emphasis on collaborative authorship in art. This was the case with Mappa, his best known series of works, large-scale tapestries in which each nation is represented by its flag. Although conceived by Boetti, the maps were embroidered by women in Afghanistan, a country the artist visited regularly until the Soviet invasion in 1979.
Here the debt to Boetti is most explicit in a series of multicoloured tapestries that combine the Italian artist's interest in craft, collaboration and language with striking results. The largest of these is Order & Disorder (2012), a square composed of sixty-four individual nine by nine grids, each one an embroidered anagram of Turk's name. As with Boetti's Mappa, Turk did not make the tapestries himself, but he relied on a system of distributed authorship that has become the norm in contemporary art production. These are made by members of Fine Cell Work, a charity and social enterprise which teaches male inmates how to embroider as part of the rehabilitation process; a belief in the palliative and pecuniary benefits of endowing others with skill that in Britain goes back to the philanthropy tradition of the nineteenth century. Turk's was not an entirely altruistic endeavour however: like Boetti before him, Turk sees a liberatory quality in conceiving such an intensive, time-consuming production processes that others then execute.
Word puzzles and ideas about labour arise in many other works in the show. Gavin e Turk (Blue Biro) (2011) is one of two canvases inspired by Boetti's ballpoint series from the 1970s. There is some uncertainty here: in Boetti's case these were done by others, but it is not clear whether Turk is the author or not of these works. In both artists' works, a neatly stencilled-out alphabet runs along one side of the canvas, the rest of which is a sea of biro in which floating white commas are picked out in white; a code the viewer has to break to find the words contained within. While in Boetti's case this reveals the name of the artwork, in Turk's it unsurprisingly spells out his own name.
Yet the show is about more than just Turk, or even Turk and Boetti. In the room at the gallery's rear is Self Portrait (Fountain) a life-size bronze self-portrait based on Boetti's sculpture Autoritratto (1993), in which the fully-clothed artist showers himself with steaming hot water. This was itself an homage to an earlier work, Bruce Nauman's photographic work Self-Portrait as a Fountain (1966 - 67). All three are part of a longer lineage of fountains and found objects that began with Duchamp, who was also responsible for the issues of authorship and skill in conceptual art that underlie this exhibition.
Although a much smaller show than the Tate's offering, Gavin & Turk is still a worthwhile visit. It does demand knowledge of Boetti to both comprehend the depth of Turk's debt to him here and to engage with what is ultimately a conceptually rich show — although whether the sombre, silent space makes all these ideas accessible to the visitor is unclear. What certainly does come through is art's debt to its history and its makers, neither of which get sufficient shrift in contemporary practice.